By Nick Rohlman
For the first time since Mumm’s Saloon closed 10 years ago, a member of the Mummey family owns a bar in Iowa City.
Ben Mummey, whose father owned Mumm’s, completed the purchase of the Deadwood, 6 S. Dubuque St., from longtime owner Jim Bell on July 1.
“I’ve been doing this a really long time, and I’m just happy that at this point that I get the opportunity to own [a bar] that I think is really kind of a staple of Iowa City,” Mummey said. “I think its endearing that really a lot of the regulars here like it. I think a lot of the regulars that were my father’s regulars are happy to see that a Mummey has a bar again in Iowa City.”
He is no stranger to the local bar business. He first bartended for his father at Mumm’s during summers when he was 17. Even before bartending, Mummey said, he spent time at Mumm’s with his father.
“I started working in a bar at age 5,” Mummey said. “My dad let me count the money to help me with math skills, doing the books. I learned how to do the deposits by the age of 9.”
Mummey’s father was also introduced to the business at a young age, delivering papers to the original Donnelly’s.
“And he used to get paid a nickel to walk Kurt Vonnegut home, because he would be drunk,” Mummey said. “My dad always said he didn’t understand why everybody liked his writing; to him, he was just an old drunkard he got paid to walk home.
“When Harold Donnelly turned to my father and said, ‘I’m not gonna give you a nickel anymore to walk this guy home,’ my great uncle Charlie came in and he grabbed Harold Donnelly by the shirt, and said, ‘You’re going to give him a quarter every time from now on.’”
Mummey worked for his father at Mumm’s until 2001, he said, when Bell came down to his father’s bar and asked him to manage the Deadwood.
“I’ve always done this townie-bar thing, but I’d never done downtown,” Mummey said. “But a lot of my friends were doing this thing downtown, and I decided that, well, at that point, well, I’ll give it a try.”
Mummey later left the Deadwood, returning to work first at his father’s bar and after Mumm’s closed, printing blueprints. After a few months, the Deadwood was once again looking to hire a manager, and Bell offered Mummey his old job back.
“I told Jim point-blank to bring Ben back,” longtime Deadwood bartender Sally Callahan said.
After managing the Deadwood for the last 10 years, Mummey said, when Bell told him that he was thinking of leaving the bar business, he told Bell that he “would love to have the opportunity to buy the business.”
When that opportunity arose, Mummey decided to buy the building as well, because was important to him because “the No. 1 reason Mumm’s closed down was we never owned the property.”
Deadwood bartender Ben Gehlsen said he believes Mummey is a good fit to own the Deadwood because of his familiarity with downtown Iowa City.
“I think it’s good having a local guy who knows what Iowa City can be and should be,” Gehlsen said.
Mummey said he plans to change very little about the Deadwood, noting that in the last 10 years, the bar only made small upgrades, such as adding a power strip under the bar and replacing old tube televisions with high-definition flat screens.
“My dad always told me there are three theories on buying a bar,” Mummey said. “You can start from scratch and roll the dice, which is probably the hardest one to do. You can buy a bar that’s tanking out, change anything you want, and again, roll the dice, see what you get. Or, you can buy a winner and don’t change a thing.”
Mummey believes that he is buying a winner in the Deadwood.
“I’m very happy to say that I’ve got the ability and the opportunity to continue to do what [Deadwood founder] Jim Strabala and Jim Bell have done with the Deadwood over the last 50 years,” he said. “I’m the next link in that chain, and I’d like to put in my own 25 years.”